Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Christ is risen- oh bugger... Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen- Cantata for the third Sunday after Easter (Jubilate)

Rejoice! It's Easter! Away with sin, sorrow, gout, debt and other things that afflict grumpy eighteenth century composers (and twenty-first century bloggers, for that matter) Well, that's the message that the first hearers of this cantata in Weimar might have expected. It was 12 April 1714, they were in the middle of the Easter season, and even the name of this particular Sunday in the Lutheran calendar- Jubilate- means nothing more than Rejoice! And yet Bach and his librettist Salomon Franck gave them a cantata that plunges to the depths of despair. The title is an almost parodically intense depiction of everything people wouldn't expect to hear this Sunday: “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing”. So what's going on here?

True, the readings that the congregation would have heard that day weren't exactly a barrel of laughs. The reading from the first letter of Peter concluded with a less-than-rousing reassurance: “when you do well and suffer for it, if you take it patiently, this is acceptable with God”. Well, thanks. And the Gospel reading, from John 16, compares the suffering the disciples are going to experience with that of childbirth. This isn't going to be easy- especially when the only consolation is the idea that “ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”.

And so the music is rooted in the mood of these forbidding texts. The impression I got of the opening instrumental sinfonia was weariness: a certain nobility, but ultimately a soul that was being sapped. Cantus Cölln's one-to-a-part performance brings out the leaden heaviness of the bass line . It gives a real feeling of a spirit of desolation afflicting a believer after the fireworks of Easter. The unstable harmonies add to the sense that we are plodding over shifting sands. Essentially, the listeners are being placed in the same situation as the post-Easter disciples: not despondent, still awaiting something to enter their lives- but at the moment dispirited and confused as to what will happen next.

And the second movement gets even more emotionally dark. The plodding breaks out into a lament- shockingly so in Phillipe Herreweghe's recording with Collegium Vocale Ghent, which brings out the beauty and sad serenity of the opening sinfonia only to introduce the second movement with a sudden stabbing chord. Bach's genius in depicting the blackest spiritual pain in music of the greatest beauty is at its height here; it's a movement that defies description again. (Eagle eyed readers may note that it's taken me a year since the last entry to pluck up the courage to write about it).

Clearly Bach thought this was good stuff too, because he re-worked this chorus decades later to form the Crucifixus of his great musical testament, the Mass in B Minor. But in some ways it's even more perfect here in its original form. After the widely-spaced howls of “Weinen! Klagen!” , full of open-mouthed “a” and “ei” sounds, the voices focus in close together for the words “Angst und Not” (anguish and trouble). The clusters of consonants make almost it necessary to sing those words with gritted teeth; it's like a desperate attempt to return to some sort of control after a breakdown. We do hear a tiny bit of major-key tonality here; Bach takes us from C minor into G major and it's like a shaft of sunlight. Bach uses major-key emotional colours of music in a predominantly minor-key context like Rembrandt uses shafts of light in a dark painting. For me it's all the more effective for portraying awful resignation, the quiet sorrow of the damaged. And even after a well-mannered bit of counterpoint on the words “sind der Christen Tranenbrot” (“These things are the Christian's bread of tears”) which might point towards acceptance, if not actual happiness, the anguish of the weeping, wailing breakdown returns as the opening section is repeated in full.

Little overt theatricality is needed in the perfomance of this second movement. This music has all the emotional expression in itself. I found the EMI recording of this cantata with King's College Cambridge under Stephen Cleobury utterly spellbinding here. It's something about their combination of incisiveness and calm. Combined with the generous acoustic of King's it weaves an even more disturbing texture, like faraway childrens' weeping that we are powerless to stop.

After the utter desolation of this second movement, where can we go? It still looks bad. A brief alto recitative has a fourfold repetition of the statement that we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven “durch viel Trübsal”- through much trouble. The alto aria that follows lightens the mood as much as you might expect: “Kreuz und Krone sind verbunden, Kampf und Kleinod sind vereint.”- Cross and Crown are bound together, struggle and reward are one. There's even a strange slow-motion parody of a trill on the word Kampf, struggle- rather than a sign of exuberant joy, it feels like the melody is trapped in an up-and-down loop and can't escape. The bass aria follows. So often (as in the St Matthew Passion) the alto portrays the depths of pain whereas Bach gives the bass words of comfort. Here, it's not quite so simple. Yes, the pace quickens and the anguished feel of the earlier movements is replaced with a light, yet steely determination: “Ich folge Christo nach”- I will follow after Christ. But even in this little movement, barely a third of the length of the alto aria, we get moments of shocking darkness. “I kiss Christ's Schmach” sings the bass: Schmach is a wonderful and terrible word meaning shame, desolation, pain. Everything that we though we had left behind on Good Friday is there for us to embrace and kiss still. Easter hasn't erased that pain.

We're running out of cantata, and the words relentlessly drag us down to the realm of pain and struggle. Almost the last chance comes in the tenor aria that follows us. The words might seem to be more of the same: sei getreu - “Be faithful!” in the face of the pain that will come. Why bother? Can this cantata only offer pie in the sky when you're already racked with agony? Well. Bach is brave enough to look that possibility in the face. The tenor's melody writhes on the words “alle Pein”- all pain- in exquisite harmonic torture.

But Bach also knows that redemption comes from above. And over the tenor's anguish, a solo oboe (or trumpet, depending on the recording) sings out a chorale melody familiar to Bach's listeners: Jesu meine Freude, Jesu my joy. Is it a wordless, emotional response to the person of Jesus that Bach is advocating? And as the oboe melody rises, the voice also rises and takes on a quality of martyred ecstasy. After the rain, all storms will pass away: only be faithful! But the last words are still the urgent call sei getreu, sei getreu. We're left with the struggle.

There's no real easy message from this cantata. But there must be some value in this plunge into the dark side of Easter. In any public cycle of grief and happiness, whether being told to be sad at a funeral or to be happy at a football match, there is a risk of dis-integration of the inner feelings and the outer face. It's that dreadful moment when you want to just call out the enforced happiness for its fakery. It's when you are told “Happy days are here again!”- but all you can do is shudder at the distance between your real feelings and the Disneyfied grin society demands.

Here, Bach is exploring the tensions that are inevitable at this time of the liturgical year. We've been through Passion and Resurrection; and what's happened to us? Well, you might feel reborn and revitalised in a new Easter life. Great! But like any infatuation, this wonderful endorphin rush will subside. You'll be left with the emptiness of trudging on.. and on... with only the memories of how good it once felt. This is a cantata for that moment. Even in the heart of Easter joy, Bach sees the pain of living; just as in the darkest moments of his Passion settings, there is at last redemption.

And in the very final movement we hear the congregation singing an almost desperate hymn of consolation:”Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, Dabei will ich verbleiben.”- “what God does is well done, I will cling to this.” Over the chorale, another high wordless instrumental descant sings out. Heaven still sings out its joy in response to pain on earth. The gap is immense, and the two are still separated... for the moment.

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